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[March 09, 2014]
A Hobbesian choice: Religious freedom in the business world [Deseret News (UT)]
(Deseret News (UT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) A household name kicked an old habit for moral reasons last month: CVS Pharmacy announced it would stop selling tobacco. Other companies taking moral positions that infuse their business include Whole Foods Market and Chipotle Mexican Grill, which sell food grown or raised to high standards of environmental and animal welfare. Wal- Mart, Walgreens, and Disney cut the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables and eliminated junk-food ads to curb childhood obesity. Dunkin' Donuts recycles its foam cups and funds research for a non- foam cup alternative to reduce its carbon footprint. TOMS Shoes donates a pair of new shoes to a needy child for every pair it sells. Newman's Own gives all its profits to charity. These decisions reflect a growing American trend of corporate social responsibility, where profit-making businesses make some decisions apart from -- and often contrary to -- their bottom-line financial interests, based on moral or philosophical values.
The White House heaped praise on CVS's decision as a "powerful example" for corporate America. But when an arts-and-crafts chain, Hobby Lobby, and a Christian bookstore chain, Mardel, decided to exclude from their employee health insurance plans drugs and devices that can end human life after conception because of religious values, the White House responded very differently. It has fought them all the way to the United States Supreme Court. There, on March 25th, the government will demand that the Court force the religiously based Hobby Lobby and Mardel to accept the Administration's preference to include insurance coverage for such drugs and devices in their health plans with no regard for the deeply held religious beliefs that motivate the businesses' very existence. Outside the courtroom, the government lauds companies for making morally motivated decisions to preserve natural resources and extinguish tobacco use. Inside the courtroom, the government fights a company's morally motivated policy to preserve human life. The government argues that, because Hobby Lobby and Mardel are corporations, they are legally unable to make religiously motivated decisions, and therefore are not protected by a federal statute -- the Religious Freedom Restoration Act -- that otherwise would require government to accommodate the religious companies.
Why these opposite responses by the government to decisions by for-profit companies based on moral, philosophical, or religious priorities? The government praises one corporate decision, but litigates to reverse another. The government cannot have it both ways. Either a business can consciously make a decision for moral reasons or it cannot. When the White House praises CVS for placing moral motives ahead of financial ones -- reportedly a top CVS executive had lost a relative to tobacco-related disease and decided to do something about it -- the government is admitting that companies can make moral decisions that reflect the values of their stakeholders.
Hobby Lobby and Mardel are closely held family businesses that are extensions of the life's purpose of the religious individuals who founded and lead them: the Green Family. The Greens conduct both businesses according to their personal religious beliefs, to "honor God with all that has been entrusted" to them, and to "use the Green family assets to create, support, and leverage the efforts of Christian ministries." Their businesses give millions of dollars every year to Christian ministries. Hobby Lobby's mission statement includes a commitment to honor "the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles." Its stores close on Sundays so employees may enjoy a day of rest, foregoing millions of dollars each year. The companies provide all its employees with free services reflecting religious values: chaplains, spiritual counseling, and religiously-themed financial courses. Hobby Lobby places hundreds of full-page advertisements around Christmas and Easter each year, inviting readers to "know Jesus as Lord and Savior." Hobby Lobby abstains from even indirectly promoting alcohol by refusing to sell shot glasses or to haul beer in the extra space in its trucks, losing substantial profits from distributors. What else does a company have to do to prove that sincere religious values can blend with business values to shape corporate policy, practice, and culture? When the Supreme Court convenes on March 25th, it will hear the government push for the most brazen violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act these Justices will likely ever encounter. The government burdens the businesses exercise of religion by forcing them to either renounce their religious beliefs or pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines each year. Backing Hobby Lobby and Mardel into this Hobbesian choice is not moral. It is not legal either.
Hannah C. Smith is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board and Senior Counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm that defends liberty for all faiths. The Becket Fund serves as counsel for Hobby Lobby.
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